You thought you were over the biggest hurdle once your dog accepted your baby as part of the family. Now, however, things are changing again. Your baby is turning into a toddler, and his sudden mobility can change his relationship with your dog. Toddlers have a tendency to pull tails, play with dog toys, and grab handfuls of dog fur. Keep this in mind as you make adjustments to keep the peace between your toddler and your dog.
Put Up Baby Gates
One of the best ways to protect your child from your dog and vice versa is to use baby gates to keep them separate. Baby gates across doorways allow the dog and your toddler to see each other, but they also allow them both the freedom to play and nap without interference from each other. Baby gates can help keep both your dog and toddler safe. Remember that it's never okay to leave a dog alone with a small child.
Never Leave a Dog and Toddler Unsupervised
This is the most important step in keeping your toddler and your dog safe. Toddlers are unpredictable and often uncoordinated. Dogs have the potential to hurt a child, unintentionally or otherwise. This is not a good combination. To ensure the safety of all your family members, don't leave a dog alone with an unattended toddler for even a minute.
Practice Handling Your Dog
Dogs who are used to having all parts of their bodies handled throughout their lives are more likely to accept the uncoordinated handling of toddlers. As soon as possible, begin teaching your dog to love being handled. Practice looking in your dog's ears, holding his paws, rubbing his fur, and tugging gently on his tail. Talk to him calmly, giving him praise for accepting all types of handling. It's a good idea to give him a few tasty treats while you are working on handling exercises. Your dog should associate handling with good things, like praise and treats.
Give Your Dog His Own Space
Make sure your dog always has a place to escape to that is off limits to your toddler. A crate is a great way to provide a comfortable, safe spot for your dog. If you haven't crate trained your dog before, it is never too late to introduce it. Whether you decide to use a crate, a dog bed, or another favorite place of your dog's, set clear limits with your toddler so that he knows that place is off limits.
Teach Your Child to How to Pet Your Dog
Spend time each day teaching your toddler how to treat your dog. Sit close to your dog with your toddler on your lap. Start by holding your hand under your dog's nose to allow him to sniff it. Then hold your toddler's hand and have him do the same. Next pet your dog gently, and then hold your toddler's hand while he repeats your actions. Use simple terms such as "sniff hand" and "gentle" to let your toddler know what you're doing. If your toddler gets too rough, tell him no, and explain that he can hurt the dog. Move him away from the dog if he continues to be too rough, and try again when your toddler is calmer. Teaching your toddler these exercises can also go a long way in keeping him safe around strange dogs.
Teach Your Toddler to Respect Your Dog's Things
While many dogs are tolerant of having a child play with their toys, bones, or food bowls, some dogs get aggressive over these items. It's important that you teach your toddler to leave your dog's things alone. Move your child away from your dog's food bowl, or if he's old enough, have your toddler help you to feed the dog and show him that he then needs to move away so your dog can eat. If your child picks up the dog's toys, take them away, telling him that the toy belongs to your dog, and give your toddler one of his own toys instead.
Reward Good Behavior
Positive reinforcement works well for both dogs and toddlers. Don't forget to let them know when you like their behavior. If your toddler is calmly petting your dog, tell him he's doing a good job. If your dog is calmly accepting having your toddler grab big handfuls of his fur, throw him a treat (and then remind your toddler about the right way to handle the dog!). Consistently rewarding good behavior from both of them should make for a better relationship between your toddler and your dog.
When to Get Help
If you are not comfortable with your dog's body language around your toddler, or if your dog has growled, snapped, or bitten your toddler, find a dog trainer or animal behaviorist immediately. Your veterinarian may be able to recommend someone good. Keep your dog and toddler away from each other until you have consulted a professional. A good dog trainer can help you come up with a plan to deal with the problem between your dog and toddler.
Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT